Congress Moves to Protect Waterways

Conservationists pleased with bipartisan work on protecting crucial law


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 237

A record number of members of Congress reintroduced the Clean Water Protection Act Wednesday, signaling momentum to stop mountaintop removal mining and other industrial waste dumping that destroys streams, lakes and rivers. The bill would amend the Clean Water Act and reinstate a prohibition that prevents mining companies and other industries from dumping mass amounts of solid industrial wastes into waterways.

The Clean Water Protection Act would overturn a 2002 Bush administration rule change that allowed coal mining companies to create valley fills while burying thousands of miles of streams in the practice of mountaintop removal mining. The rule change also allows other industries to dump waste in waters under the guise of renaming the waste material as “fill.”

But this is not just about mountaintop removal mining. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case involving an Alaskan gold mine that was issued a permit to dump contaminated mine tailings into a lake in the Tongass National Forest because the government called the waste “fill.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Bush administration’s change to the definition of “fill” material to permit waste disposal could not be applied to the discharges in question involving the gold mine, and the Supreme Court is reviewing that decision.

Today’s bill introduction represents a bipartisan effort to bring back the law as it existed previously, led by Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Dave Reichert (R-WA), and John Yarmuth (D-KY), with 114 other members of Congress co-sponsoring the bill.

“We are elated that more than 100 members of Congress have signaled a strong commitment to restoring clean water protections to thousands of miles of Appalachian streams, rivers, and lakes,” said Jessica Ennis, legislative assistant for Earthjustice. “This bill adds momentum to the effort to end the destructive practice of mountaintop removal. Almost twice as many members are original co-sponsors of the Protection Act this year compared to the 110th Congress. We believe this shows that stopping the destruction of the nation’s streams, rivers, and lakes is a growing priority on the Hill.”

Mountaintop removal mining is a form of strip mining in which coal companies use explosives to blast as much as 800 to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains to reach the coal seams that lie underneath. The resulting millions of tons of waste rock, dirt, and vegetation are then dumped into surrounding valleys, permanently burying thousands of miles of streams under piles of rubble hundreds of feet deep.

“We applaud Representatives Pallone, Reichert, and Yarmuth for their leadership to return longstanding Clean Water Act protections to the nation’s waters and thank all of the members of Congress who are original co-sponsors of the bill,” said Lauren Trevisan, Sierra Club coal campaign advocate.

“If the ‘fill’ rule is not overturned and the prohibition against dumping solid wastes into waters restored, streams, rivers, lakes and other waters across the country could be permanently destroyed, contrary to the original purpose of the Clean Water Act,” Ms. Ennis added.

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